Blandair's next phase has a focus on inclusive play

The Baltimore Sun

A groundbreaking ceremony for the biggest, most expensive — and most inclusive — playground in a Howard County-owned park will take place at 9 a.m. Wednesday in east Columbia, as development of the third phase of Blandair Regional Park gets underway.

County Executive Allan Kittleman and other officials are expected to attend the event, which is open to the public and will take place in a field at the site off Oakland Mills Road.

County Recreation and Parks Department officials estimate the $10.9 million project will take 18 months to complete and will open in the late spring or early summer of 2020.

The county is investing just over $8 million in the project, Program Open Space provided nearly $2.6 million and $250,000 was raised by a state bond bill, according to Anna Hunter, the department’s public information and marketing director.

Nicknamed “Playground for All,” it is the third of seven phases planned for the 300-acre park site over the next decade.

“The county wanted to create something that would be a destination for all ages,” said Raul Delerme, chief of the county’s bureau of capital projects, park planning and construction.

“It will be like Central Park in Manhattan” with its active and passive uses, he said. “We expect it to be a very popular place.”

Delerme speculated that heavy construction equipment may be on site by the Aug. 22 groundbreaking.

The playground design’s emphasis on special features for all ages and abilities arose from focus groups the county held with community organizations and residents starting in 2013, he said.

Instead of 50 percent of the playground equipment being accessible to kids with disabilities — which is the most common formula for accessibility in county parks — that number was increased to 80 percent for Blandair’s playground.

Six color-coded pods will contain themed areas geared toward various sub-groupings of children from 18 months to 12 years, and the entire playground will have perimeter fencing to help contain those who tend to wander. Shade structures, picnic tables and benches will be incorporated into the layout.

This phase of the park will also contain three bocce courts, two croquet courts and two horseshoe pits, so-called “backyard games” that aren’t available in other county park facilities and will likely appeal to seniors, Delarme said.

Beth Benevides, the mother of a 19-year-old son with autism, said she and Kyle can’t wait for the playground to open.

“This will be a fun, bright and vibrant place for all special-needs kids and for all children,” said Benevides, a Marriottsville resident and former president of the Howard County Autism Society’s board of directors.

“It’s sort of like reverse mainstreaming,” Benevides said, referencing a lesser-used term for integrating special-needs students into mainstream classrooms.

“This playground has been intentionally designed for special needs kids and the amount of thought and planning that went into it is incredible,” she said. “But the features will appeal to all kids of all ages, so we’re flip-flopping things by pushing the mainstream into the special-needs community.”

Lisa Dornell Suggs, a Columbia resident whose 20-year-old son John has cognitive and physical disabilities and uses a wheelchair, said the playground’s inclusive design will be a big draw even for someone his age, because he loves being in parks and being around people.

“This beauty of this playground is that it will allow differently able kids and people of all ages to get involved and be together,” said Suggs, who said she began taking her son to county therapeutic recreation programs as an infant.

“This has been a long time coming,” she said. “We parents were very vocal about what features would and wouldn’t work. One size does not fit all.”

Susan Potts, county manager of therapeutic recreation and accommodation services, said a lot of thought went into designing the playground’s six themed areas, which will contain clusters of age-appropriate equipment, and to creating paved access and wider spaces for kids and caregivers in wheelchairs to maneuver.

“We will finally see the start of the vision that our focus groups helped lay,” Potts said.

“It can be hard to recreate as a family when one or more members has a disability,” she said. “This playground is all about universal design and helping families play together as a whole.

With the perimeter fencing, “the exits and entrances will meet ADA standards while allowing kids to be more independent and enjoy free play,” Potts said.

An Infinity Web climbing apparatus and other planned playground features were also selected for their innovative qualities.

“We also chose equipment for its safety, usability and durability,” Potts said.

She also noted that musical instruments called Free Notes comprise a feature that sensitivity experts say will relieve stress and soothe park patrons. These include cymbals, chimes and drums. Dinosaurs, the farm and outer space are themes of a few as-yet unnamed areas.

Delerme said a less flashy but integral feature of Phase III will be construction of a Recreation and Parks Department maintenance facility that will service the entire park. The shop “will give us an even greater presence on-site and that’s important to us,” he said.

Benevides singled out State Sen. Guy Guzzone for his early support of parents who were pushing for a highly-accessible playground.

“Sen. Guzzone was the first to hear our appeal and I’m so grateful to him,” she said of a meeting he convened in 2012.

Roger Thibaudeau, a North Laurel resident and immediate past president of the Howard County Autism Society’s board of directors, also credited Guzzone for asking six years ago what the county could do to help the special-needs community.

“It’s been neat to be able to see this through from start to finish,” Thibaudeau said.

He said his son Ryan is now 15 and likely won’t be interested in visiting the playground by the time it opens. Nevertheless, Thibaudeau is anxious for the park to begin construction.

“We parents were even invited to give feedback on tweaking the park’s design in 2015 and it will be exciting to see the finished project,” he said.

The next phase of Blandair, which cannot be constructed until a bridge and interchange are completed by the county’s public works department, will be located across Maryland Route 175 and will feature a Festival Lawn on about 20 acres of former meadows, Hunter said.

This phase will include a large pavilion and restroom and will serve as a venue for various events with a significant increase in parking capacity, she said. There will also be a 2-acre Children’s Garden.

To encourage accessibility, the park is connected to downtown Columbia by a paved path and there is a bike rental station in Phase I, Hunter said, and the park has also provided a bus stop on Oakland Mills Road.

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